Joey Alexander Plays Beyond His Years

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Pianist Joey Alexander recently performed at the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival in June alongside bassist Kris Funn and drummer Jonathan Pinson.

(Photo: Courtesy of Artist)

When Joey Alexander made his entrance at the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival in June, he walked to the Steinway concert grand in a somber dark suit, a huge smile lighting his face. He pressed his hands together and bowed, as several thousand people in the amphitheater and on the grassy hill beyond rose and cheered.

It was an impressive ovation, made even more meaningful by the visuals: Alexander’s slim, almost delicate build contrasted with the bulk of his instrument. The sight stirred suggestions of David sizing up Goliath or a jockey commanding a Preakness winner, with no question of who was in charge.

Even so, once Alexander, bassist Kris Funn and drummer Jonathan Pinson opened their set, it’s likely that at least a few attendees in the crowd who were unfamiliar with Alexander’s latest album, Eclipse (Motéma), were surprised by what they heard. This young man plays beyond his years.

It’s natural for youthful instrumentalists to hit the ground at full speed, their maturity as artists not yet as developed as their technical abilities. But not so for Alexander, who seems by nature to be a reflective player, intrigued more by harmonic subtlety and a more economical expression.

After playing his encore and beaming as the audience serenaded him with “Happy Birthday,” Alexander (just a day shy of 15) and his mother Fara Sila sat together backstage.

Up close, he’s even more slight than he appears onstage, with hands that seem too fragile and wrists too small to have just delivered an hour of emphatic, but nuanced, performance. He speaks quietly, sometimes registering surprise or maybe a little discomfort when asked an unexpected question, such as whether his tendency to avoid fireworks on the keys stems from largely being self-taught on a small electric instrument.

“I don’t think playing that keyboard made me want to play less,” he answered, after a moment’s thought. “I think it comes more from listening to musicians like Thelonious Monk. I heard in his playing that he not only played fewer notes, but he also put some groove into it and enjoyed what he played. That got my attention.”

Bali, Indonesia, though, wasn’t an ideal place for Alexander to cultivate a jazz aesthetic during childhood. So, when Alexander’s parents recognized his talent and an inclination toward jazz, the family moved to Jakarta.

“The decision was not easy,” said Sila, speaking even more softly than her son. “But we knew how talented Joey was when he was almost 6 years old. We put him in lessons, and he learned one song in three weeks. After that, it was one song in one week. The next step was one song in three days. We knew then there was something special with Joey. So, we prayed together and learned that everything was God’s will. We believe God definitely has something for Joey.”

Alexander’s growth was informed not just by jazz, but also a widening variety of influences, from gamelan to Eddie Van Halen, Michael Jackson and gospel music, whose imprint is clear on “Draw Me Near,” from Eclipse. “Gospel music teaches us to be simple, but also to have freedom,” the pianist said. “That’s what really inspires me in how I play, how I compose and how I improvise in every style.”

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August 2019
Cécile McLorin Salvant
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